A panel discussion during the first day of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit on the current state of the Thoroughbred and possible reasons for declines in average starts per horse and average field sizes over the past five decades yielded no consensus.
Comprised of three veterinary professionals involved in regulation, a prominent equine surgeon, and racing's all-time leading money-winning trainer, the panel at the July 8 summit at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington discussed a wide array of scenarios, ranging from whether the 21st century equine is too fragile, the possible effects of medications on whether horses start less now, and even possible economic decisions that have resulted in horses not racing as much as in the past.
To begin the discussion on the topic "Today's Thoroughbred—What Animal Are We Dealing With?", moderator Ed Bowen noted that average annual starts per horse have declined from 12 in 1960 to just 6.2 in 2013 and average field size has fallen from nine to just under eight horses per race during the same period.
He also said there are 31 mega-stables that in 2013 each had more than 150 individual horses start, representing 7.5% of all U.S. starts.
But rather than pinpoint the "usual suspect" of greater dependency on drugs as a causative effect, most of the panelists agreed that different training techniques and priorities for horse owners played as much of a role as medication.
Dr. Rick Arthur, California Horse Racing Board equine medical director, said there has been a trend more toward working horses up to a race rather than using a prep race to get a horse fit for a more prestigious race, with the ancillary effect of each horse having fewer overall races.
"It used to be every trainer used a race to get ready to win a race," he said, noting the different training techniques now being employed when compared with those of a bygone era. "Some horses are working as fast as they're running."
Arthur said another reason for decline in starts is that trainers are more conservative about when to run, because they risk losing owners if they run horses when they don't believe they are ready for a top performance but want to use a race to train up to a win. Conclusion: Trainers want to have a good win percentage.
Todd Pletcher, the trainer who recently surpassed D. Wayne Lukas as racing's all-time leading earner, agreed, saying, "What we have been able to determine is we don't need that prep race in between when going for major race in four to six weeks. ...We have seen that horses run better with more time in between races."
Pletcher said another factor in why horses race less today is industry economics that make it more lucrative for a top graded stakes-winning horse or mare to be retired. He cited statistics showing that since 1990, the average broodmare price has increased 305% while the average purse size has gone up 166%.
Dr. Mary Scollay-Ward, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission equine medical director, agreed that a lot of owners decide to retire a horse once it has earned blacktype in a stakes race rather than risk waiting for the value to decrease by continuing to race.
Scollay-Ward cited the advances made in pre-race veterinary screening as another possible factor in the trend toward fewer starts by today's Thoroughbreds. She said many horses that raced in the mid-1980s would not pass a vet's inspection today.
None of the panelists were willing to buy into the commonly held notion that increased use of therapeutic medications, primarily the anti-bleeder medication Salix (also known as Lasix), has led to the decrease in starts per horse and lower field sizes. Rather than do the necessary other veterinary work to diagnose a problem, too often practitioners will turn to the medications as the first solution.
"It's whenever you get into a pattern of using them (therapeutic medications) indiscriminately where we see there are problems," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, an equine surgeon and partner in Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington.
"Therapeutic meds don't hurt horses," Scollay said, adding that over reliance on therapeutic medications can give a trainer or veterinarian a false sense of whether a horse has a problem or not. "The intent in which they are used can result in injury or harm to the horse."
Bramlage said the biggest problem with therapeutics is the tendency to repeatedly injected horses without understanding or having knowledge of underlying issues.
Pletcher said his stable's policy is not to use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) for pain in horses when they are training, only Salix.
"As a rule we don't try to mask pain," he said.
While greater medication use may not be the reason for fewer starts in American horses, there is no doubt a higher proliferation of use of therapeutic medications, the panelists agreed.
"It is rather phenomenal the number of (therapeutic) medications in barn searches" stemming from drug positives, Arthur said.
However, advances within the industry to establish thresholds—minimum levels of legal medications that can be present in a post-race sample—have gone a long way toward letting trainers know the acceptable levels of drugs that can be used.
Arthur said gaining uniformity across different racing jurisdictions with regard to medication thresholds has been difficult.
He said that some trainers, armed with the knowledge of the thresholds, still push the envelope and sometimes get caught.
"There are some who dance too close to the fire and you can't feel sorry for them when they get burned," he said.
While the panelists did not arrive at a definite reason for why horses are not racing as often, the summit session did provide fodder for future discussion of the issue.